Reflections 2011

Ian Robertson (Middle school teacher, Burnaby, BC)

   When I left Vancouver for Kenya this past summer I was filled with excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and questions. It was going to be my first time in Kenya, and my first time volunteering with Education Beyond Borders (EBB). Over the course of the more than three weeks working with numerous colleagues from the Naivasha and Gilgil districts, as well as a few colleagues from across Canada, the excitement only grew, anticipation led to adventures, enthusiasm and caring calmed nervousness, and questions were matched with a supportive community.

   As our Kenyan-Canadian team began settling into the work of preparing this year’s Gilgil/Naivasha workshops, one of the biggest questions on my mind was how I would be an effective and contributing first time team member on a project that was in its fourth summer. As we began visiting schools, the excitement and impact of the project over the past three years became exceedingly apparent, but my nervousness became heightened. As we alighted from the van at one visit to Muriricua Primary, two Canadian colleagues, Anita and Kimberley, were greeted with an incredible outpouring of affection and enthusiasm from one of our host team-mates, Rossanna, who had worked with them in previous summers. The reunion was so genuinely filled with palpable caring and gratitude on all sides, that as a first time observer I immediately had a new understanding and appreciation of something powerful, passionate and sustainable happening through EBB’s work. These women had spent a total of less than three weeks together in person during the previous summer, yet they interacted as if they were educational colleagues and personal friends that had worked side by side for years.

   Over the course of the next three weeks my question of how I could be a contributing member to a group that already possessed such strong and caring connections gave way to purpose and passion as personal interactions and shared professional growth took place through numerous outlets. These included planning sessions, workshops, professional discussions, shared reflections, co-facilitating, feedback meetings, tea time, shared meals, games, movie nights, conversations, and laughter. The process reinforced an idea that the true qualifications of being a member on a professional development team, such as EBB, is the willingness to ask questions of one’s self, willingness to challenge colleagues and be challenged by them, and most importantly one needs to prioritize caring as the cornerstone of education.

   If one wanted to look for tangible products as the result of the three weeks teacher colleagues from different parts of the world came together in Gilgil and Naivasha, then one could try counting the number of methodology hand-outs produced, the number of new workshop facilitators trained, the number of workshops delivered, the number of participants that attended workshops, the number of new methodologies that participants were introduced to, the number of new lesson plans teachers created, or the number of students these teachers would return to. These would all be impressive results in their own right. However, if one wanted to truly understand the value and sustainability of teacher colleagues working within the EBB model, then one needs to listen to the teachers involved, and remember that education is not about numbers. At its core, education is not about counting or increasing tangible objects. A school is not about a building, or a book. My experiences in Kenya deeply reinforced that schools are places of people, ideas, and energy. Places where passion and purpose come together in order to grow caring communities that facilitate learning.

   At the end of my three weeks in Kenya I felt I was a full-fledged member of a caring community of educators in Gilgil and Naivasha. While my home may be in Canada, I have a new professional community that I can contribute to the growth of, just as it contributes to my own growth. Based upon the passion filled conversations, thoughtful listening, and boundless sharing that went on during the three weeks I have no doubts each of us involved re-enter the classroom this September with a new type of energy and a feeling of support. We are all better equipped to create an environment of caring for our students when we feel a part of a caring global community ourselves. While there may be a great physical distance, true caring knows no borders—just as education knows no borders.

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Maureen Hillman (Retired teacher, Sherbrooke, Quebec)

   My journey to Kenya this summer has been an extraordinary experience of professional collaboration and personal discovery. I have met wonderful people and glimpsed a breathtakingly beautiful country; I have seen stunning and sometimes sobering contrasts; I have witnessed incredible sights and sounds; I have listened and learned, shared and reflected; and I have renewed my conviction, developed during equally enriching experiences of collaboration with teachers in Senegal, that we can all contribute to change in some small way.

   In this third year of the project in Laikipia, thirteen Kenyan teachers worked with a team of seven Canadians to organize and prepare a week-long conference on student-centred methodologies for over sixty local teachers.  They gave workshops on collaborative learning, inquiry, project-based learning and reflection.  In addition, they dealt with conference logistics and started work on programme evaluation.  During the coming year, professional learning clusters in each zone will meet to organise further professional development opportunities and reach out to other teachers in their schools. Next year, Kenyan teacher-facilitators, with the collaboration of Canadians, will train new facilitators to give workshops at the teacher conference.  I believe that this focus on empowering teachers to take ownership of their own professional development is why EBB’s work has real long-term value.

   It was an incredible learning experience to work with colleagues from Kenya and from all across Canada. I was fascinated to see how people with such different personalities, ages and backgrounds could work so hard together, get along so well and have so much fun when they are all committed to a common goal!  That sense of commitment was remarkable: Kenyan teacher-facilitators devoted two weeks of their holiday to preparing and giving workshops while local teachers attended the five day conference, in many cases either travelling quite some way, night and morning, or boarding in the pupils’ dormitory; and it was also vacation time for most of the Canadian teachers.  A great team spirit quickly emerged and we have all come home richer for our new friendships.

   I was also struck by the level of engagement of the pupils we met during school visits or saw daily at Loise School where the conference was hosted. They talked of their great dreams and ambitions for the future, and demonstrated their endless curiosity about us and about the world around them.  Several teenagers explained they would take part in holiday ‘tuition’ - extra guided study to prepare for the November national exams.  The girls at Loise studied diligently, often without supervision, and they also tended their school garden, prepared their own meals, did endless laundry, cleared the flood waters after a torrential storm - and just loved chatting with any of us or sharing movie night!

   One of the enduring pictures in my mind is that of a little boy reading to us clearly in English after only a few months in school.  He was standing on the reddish earthen floor, in an overcrowded classroom where benches and books are shared, where light pours through cracks between the wooden planks, and a cool wind blows through partially shuttered windows with no glass.  If ongoing professional development for teachers can contribute to the academic achievement of such boys and girls and to their hopes of a better future, then the work of EBB is truly worthwhile.

   The contrasts between such school buildings and resources on the one hand and pupils’ ambitions and hopes on the other are great; so, too, is the gap between the beauty of this country and the heart-wrenching poverty and suffering we also witnessed; and so, too, is the contrast between the atmosphere of trust and sincere friendship with which we were constantly greeted and the occasional security concerns or the media references to corruption. 

   But, however many problems and issues our different countries face (and recent riots in the UK, my own birthplace, demonstrate that they are numerous), the place we Canadians discovered this summer is a country of exquisite beauty - from the steep escarpments plunging down to the Rift Valley, to the endless grasslands, rugged hills and amazing wildlife. Every day at registration, we saw the snow-capped, hazy outline of Mount Kenya looming majestically in the distance, bathed in the soft early morning light. On a weekend bush walk, we moved quietly, in single file, listening to the whistling sounds of the breeze in the thorn trees, until we came across gazelle or zebra grazing on the vast tracts of open land which stretched to the far-off hills and beyond.  As dusk fell, the clouds darkened on the horizon and the sun’s last golden rays filtered through, turning the acacia trees into lonely black silhouettes against the sky.

   Beyond the beauty of the landscapes and the elephants, giraffes, black rhinos and impala that inhabit the area, the beauty of the people we met in Laikipia will remain with me: the wonderful wide smiles and happy-sounding Swahili expressions that greeted us each morning, the vigorous handshakes, the pleasant comments, the constant appreciation and encouragement, the shared laughter, as well as the dances, photos, quotations, prayers, songs and poems....

   The conviction, dynamism and commitment of the Kenyan and Canadian teachers with whom I had the privilege to work this summer augur well for the future.  That several of them were young teachers was a particular joy to me – as I watched them work, share and build this summer, I felt that our world was in good hands.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”

Helen Keller

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Beverlee Ritchie (Vice-Principal, Brampton, ON)

   The summer of 2011 is a highlight of my education career.  The 3 weeks in Nanyuki, Kenya, were extremely rewarding.  I got to work with a talented team of Canadian and Kenyan facilitators designing and delivering rich student-centered programmes requiring minimal budgets and physical resources.

   Our tours of schools in the Central Highlands region of Laikipia were humbling.  Teachers worked to meet exacting government standards in venues with dirt floors, windows open to the elements, cracked blackboards, and students hungry for food and knowledge.  Class numbers were daunting (often in the fifties).  Everywhere we went, we were greeted with warm smiles and proudly feted with eager displays of reading, singing, and athletics. 

   In private conversations, administrators and teachers spoke of overcoming the odds.  Much of their time and energy is spent advocating daily for the basics –

government food relief, sponsorships of tuition and clothing to allow students to attend school, subsidies for building infrastructures, sources of classroom supplies.  Their stories and efforts are inspiring.  In spite of difficulties, smiles and optimism prevail.

   I am still coming to terms with much of what I experienced.  Many reactions have surprised me (for example, walking out of a former favourite haunt, Harrods, overcome by ostentatious displays). 

   I look forward to returning to Kenya for another year of collaboration.  The summer of 2012 promises to be even more rewarding as the Kenyans come closer to independently designing and conducting the professional development of colleagues.

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Bill Upward (Adult educator, Vancouver, BC)

   This was my second year in Laikipa, having had the privilege of being a part of the 2010 team, and I was very excited to reconnect with our Kenyan colleagues and hear about their experiences using the methodologies we had presented together the previous summer. Although we’d had some communication throughout the year, lack of reliable technology and busy schedules on both ends didn’t allow as much of this as desired.

   As we visited schools and spoke with teachers who had attended EBB’s 2010 workshops, I was delighted to hear them speak about how well the new methods had worked in their classrooms. The students had loved the change of pace and the teachers seemed to be re-energized by the new approach, as well. Although I had faith in the merits of the work we were doing, this direct reinforcement was surprisingly rewarding and energizing for the work still to be done.

   When we re-joined our Kenyan facilitator colleagues the following week to prepare this summer’s workshops, I was reminded of how strong a bond we had formed in two short weeks the preceding year. It felt like family reconnecting after a year apart with new stories to tell and a recommitment to the project we all embraced. As the third year in a four-stage process, our main goal was to see the Kenyan facilitators put on the entire workshop conference themselves with Canadians mainly along for support and encouragement. Although the path had a few more twists and turns that expected, the conference turned out great with the Kenyan facilitators rising to the challenge and providing an excellent professional development opportunity for the 60+ attending teachers. The final day was filled with pledges to “keep the fire burning”, a reference to that fact that the long-term goal of EBB’s model is to empower local teachers to find a way to do ongoing, sustainable professional development in whatever form works best in the local context.  I left feeling very encouraged that there was a concrete support structure in place for this to happen throughout the school year and the fulfillment in knowing that our Kenyan colleagues were now fully driving the pro-d bus.

   Being in the role of team leader this year, I was able to derive satisfaction from knowing that, as Canadians, we had done a very good job stepping away from the project (a very difficult thing for conscientious, well-meaning teachers to do!) to allow our Kenyan colleagues to take it over. I would like to thank all Canadian members of the Laikipia team for their dedication, their flexibility, and their willingness to see the big picture and find a unique way to contribute to the overall progress of the project. I would like to thank all Kenyan members of the Laikipia team for the same as well as their courage in taking up the challenge presented and truly becoming the educational leaders they were always capable of being. I leave this year with profound gratitude for the experience and a deep-seated confidence that our work together will bear tremendous fruit.

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Vanessa Liston (Secondary teacher, Masset, BC)

   I am proud and humbled to have been part of Education Beyond Borders’ summer project in Kenya’s Naivasha and Gilgil school districts this year. Initially, I was drawn to Education Beyond Borders’ model for its focus on sustainable development through capacity building that is responsive to, and eventually led by local teachers in the various areas where EBB works. The idea of teachers working and learning with each other for their and their students’ development is a powerful and inspiring notion. Indeed, it’s what unites us as professionals and educators. Even with all the prior preparation and research however, I could not have envisioned how EBB actually manifests itself in action. It’s akin to the difference between a unit plan and the new and meaningful understandings, unexpected learning, and shared experiences that occur only in the process of engagement in the unit.

   The Canadian team entered year four in Naivasha/Gilgil with the task of preparing Kenyan facilitator trainers to take over the training and support of workshop facilitators for the teacher conference to be held in week three. After this initial training session, our Kenyan colleagues took over the training of facilitators, most of organization of the workshops, and all of the actual sessions for the teacher conference held at Wellspring school August 8-10, 2011. This year, the focus of the workshops included many of the same topics as in previous years (i.e. collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, and project-based learning), as well as one new subject, guidance and counselling, developed entirely by our Kenyan colleagues. Despite inevitable unforeseen challenges and logistical hiccups, ultimately all parts of the project were thoughtfully and successfully accomplished.

   Reflecting on the time we spent together in Kenya, I realize that my understanding of my learning and experiences can also be classified under the same focal points as the teacher workshops. In my view, all of us were successful in this summer’s project due to collaboration, differentiation, project-based learning, as well as guidance and counselling. Although I had given a lot of thought to the above methodologies in the classroom context, I had never considered them as a basis for professional development, or as the required elements for successful intercultural experiences.

   Collaborative learning focuses on interdependence, individual and group accountability, effective communication and participation, and reflection. Each day that I worked on this project, both in Canada prior to departure, as well as in Naivasha/Gilgil, these elements were part of our work together. From setting community agreements, to taking on individual roles within the team, to reflecting on the day, I believe that we owe the strength of our collegial relationships to the collaborative structures and philosophy that were cornerstones of this project.

   Our collective ability to differentiate the training sessions and workshops for teachers in varying contexts was also paramount to the positive outcome of the project. In most sessions, we had facilitators and teachers from both secondary and elementary schools, from diverse subject backgrounds, with varying numbers of students and resources in their schools. To make the training sessions and workshops meaningful for everyone, it was important that we were sensitive to these differences. The school visits in the first week were very helpful for me in contextualizing the sessions, for example. However, one difference that we overlooked was that some of the resources we had on hand for the workshops did not match what was available in most schools. For the future, we considered facilitating workshops with similar materials to those that teachers have available.

   Perhaps the most obvious correlation between teaching methods and professional development this summer was the model of project-based learning. The principles of this technique involve creating a safe learning environment, positioning learning in a ‘real world’ context, as well as ensuring the project is multidisciplinary, hands-on, meaningful, and accessible. Fundamentally, our project this summer met and exceeded these goals, providing opportunities for all of us to engage as teachers in discussions and activities that challenged us to think about our classrooms and our pedagogies in new and different ways. I particularly enjoyed sharing ideas around lenses of interpretation with other English teachers, and gleaning insights into the various roles of the teacher as counsellor in both Kenya and Canada.

   The themes of listening and support prevalent throughout the guidance and counselling workshop played a unique role in our intercultural experience as well. We spent a lot of time with both our Canadian and Kenyan colleagues, building meaningful relationships in a relatively short period of time. Besides working together on planning and preparing workshops, we ate meals together, socialized, danced, laughed, and in the case of Canadians, lived together. I learned that in this type of situation, the boundaries between professional and personal relationships necessarily overlap. The friendship, feedback, and support of my colleagues were certainly significant to my enjoyment of this experience.  To be sure, the time we spent together not working was arguably as important as the time we spent working. After all, our identities consist of more than our professional selves. The relationships and connections forged in these times enabled us to work more effectively together, and will help us to continue to support each other’s work throughout the year.

   After having spent time on the ground with Education Beyond Borders, I realized that one of the most exciting parts of this organization is its ability to change and adapt to meet new needs and challenges. It is constantly in the process of being defined and redefined to suit the needs and visions of local participants. That the vision is so flexible, while the values remain stable, is a testament to EBB’s dedication to empowering educators. And, without a doubt, it has achieved this objective beyond measure.

   As in all education, this experience is not isolated to a time and place. As we reenter our daily lives, it remains part of each of us as a lens that we can never remove. The community that was created and the understanding that was built individually and collectively generate waves throughout our professional and personal lives. It is incredibly humbling to consider how the ripples of our learning will spread to infinite people and places. It has been inspiring to work with such intelligent, passionate, committed, and open-minded individuals, team members, and organization. I have come back to Canada with a renewed commitment to the small, yet indispensable acts that create the conditions for change both locally and internationally.

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Alexandra Roosenburg (Primary IT Coordinator, Washington, DC, USA)

   After living in Tanzania for 3 years, and seeing the comings and goings of many different aid organizations, I had a pretty strong idea of what made sustainable projects, and what I would look for in any NGO that I would volunteer with. A big factor for me is the sustainability of skills taught and work done in the local population, once the volunteers leave the country. When I began my work with EBB, I immediately knew that we were on the same page about putting the skills, vision, and work in the hands of the South Africans. And that made all of the hard work totally worth it.

   In our small team working in South Africa, we spent one week on the Eastern Cape, doing a week-long on-site workshop at a conference center, for about 30 participants, each representing one school in districts as far as 700km away. From 9am until 4pm, we spent 5 days setting goals, teaching skills, creating visions and goals for schools, and working side by side with our partners from the E-learning Department. Each of the personnel from this department are in charge of a set of schools, to check up on and give technical advice and support to throughout the school year. Having these colleagues present and participating at the workshop was invaluable. It allowed them to pick up any skills that they may not have been sure of, allowed them to see an example of how to set up and run a weeklong technology workshop, and to build bonds with the teachers that were the appointed “IT Champions” of their schools. The workshop was not without its’ hiccups- weak to no internet signal at times, day-long power outages, freezing cold evening, etc, but the fact that we were also all having our meals together, and spending free time sitting around and chatting, allowed for a very strong bond, and immediate chats, emails, and Skype calls once we went our separate ways. Everyone left the workshop so enthusiastic and ready to bring their skills and visions back to their schools- and several immediately put plans into action when school started back up a few short weeks later. It was great to see that they took the skills provided to them, and ran with them. It was also great to have a reflection from our e-learning colleagues, and feel like they were ready to take their schools to the next level and continue pushing them to expand their technology integration.

   When we left the Eastern Cape, we went over to Cape Town, to work with schools in the Philippi Township.  This experience was completely different from that on the Eastern Cape, mainly because it was more of a 3-week day job, and not a week-long retreat.  The teachers and facilitators that we worked with to plan and execute the workshop, were coming in each morning from their separate locations, and left each day between 4 and 5. There were no dinners together, no extra chances for chats and bonding, but there were 3 weeks instead of one. In Cape Town, we worked with a local educational technology facility that works with local schools to train students and teachers on how to use various types of software or technology. We worked with this group to design and prepare for the workshop that we put on for about 50 teachers from township schools all around Cape Town. We were less in charge of the workshop this time around, and acted more in the role of mentors, helping to prepare the facility for future workshops that they could conduct without us there. It was great to see them really take on the roles of facilitator, to provide deeper instruction during the workshop by holding sessions in the participants’ native tongue, and to know that they would be the ones directly following up with those teachers and schools on the action plans that they developed. We spent our third and final week in Cape Town visiting schools and following up on the learning and planning that took place during the workshop. We met with necessary parties and helped to get wheels in motion on action plans. It was such a great experience to not just visit a school, but to get to spend some time in it, seeing the facilities, the lessons, and the students interacting with the technology available to them.

   It was my first year working with Education Beyond Borders and with these schools and groups in South Africa, so I was learning a lot on the fly. I look forward to future visits, wherein I will have the background knowledge of previous workshops, previous learning sessions provided, and technologies available to the schools, so that I can make even more of an impact on the schools and teachers by preparing workshop sessions and technology tips that will really be wholly applicable to their situations.

   I have told many of the teachers in my school as well as others that will listen about how valuable this experience was for me, and what a difference I really saw myself making in the attitudes and skills of the South African teachers with regards to technology integration. South African government schools are in a very different place than my school here in North America is, and it serves as a good reminder not only of how lucky we are to have what we do, but also in the steps that it took to get here, and how to help others take those same steps.  A powerful reminder through an even more powerful experience. 

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